WRESTLING WITH GOD
Genesis 32: 22-32
For the past two weeks, we have been looking at the life of Jacob, a
man whose name means “one who strives.” He was called that because he
came out of the womb with his hand grasping his brother Esau’s ankle. It was
thought that he was seeking to be the first born--because the first-born
received a greater portion of the inheritance.
We’ve already seen how Jacob stole his father’s blessing, which had
been intended for his brother, Esau, and is forced to flee to Haran--the home
of his uncle Laban. On the way to Haran, at a place called Bethel, Jacob has a
dream of a ladder which rises into the heavens. At Bethel Jacob makes a deal
with God. “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I go, and
will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my
father’s house in peace; then the Lord shall be my God.” (Gen. 28: 20) It is
not a perfect prayer. Indeed, it is quite a presumptuous and somewhat selfish
prayer. But it is the kind of prayer you pray when you are still immature in
But Bethel did something to Jacob. He was not the same head-strong
young man he had been before. Now he is a man of principle and character.
It’s a good thing. At this point in his life, he has his principle and his
character tested by his shrewd uncle Laban.
Last week we saw how Jacob fell in love with his beautiful cousin,
Rachel. He agreed to work for seven years for her “and they seemed but a
few days,” according to Genesis 29: 20, “because of the love he had for her.”
This is good stuff if you like romance stories. But Uncle Laban had
different ideas. On the wedding night, he substituted Rachel’s homelier older
sister Leah to be Jacob’s new wife. To show you how infatuated Jacob was
with Rachel, however, he not only forgave his uncle, he agreed to work seven
more years to obtain Rachel. As we noted, it is one of the great love stories of
But finally Jacob tires of jousting with his uncle Laban and he starts
longing to go back home. He has prospered in Haran. No matter how his
uncle conspired to take advantage of him, through Jacob’s own cunning and
God’s providence, Jacob has come out ahead. But now his heart has turned
toward home. He has some unfinished business there. He doesn’t know it, but
he also has some other unfinished business with God.
We see that unfinished business with God come to fruition at a place
which Jacob would later call Peniel. Jacob left Haran after some more
conflict with his uncle Laban. Now he is preparing to meet his estranged
brother Esau. That night Jacob camps by a brook, and all night long he
wrestles with God. Have you ever spent the night wrestling with God?
Perhaps Jacob was wrestling with regret about his past dealings
with his brother Esau. It is not unusual for brothers to have conflict.
A Sunday School teacher was teaching the importance of love in the
home. She illustrated her point by referring to the commandment, “Honor thy
father and thy mother.”
Then she asked if there was a commandment which taught how to treat
sisters and brothers.
One little boy from a large family raised his hand quickly. Innocently
he asked, “Thou shalt not kill?”
Jacob’s conflict with Esau was not that unusual. Still, Esau was his
brother. Jacob was reaching the twilight years of his life now. He did not
want to go to the grave with this precious relationship broken.
It is not unusual for people to wrestle with regret over past misdeeds.
Marcus Cato, the great Roman statesman who lived over 2,000 years
ago once said, “I can pardon everybody’s mistakes but my own.”
Benjamin Franklin, toward the end of his life, said that he had such a
good life that if he could do it again, he would “run again, from beginning to
end, the same career of life.” All he would ask, would be “the privilege of an
author to correct in a second edition, certain errors of the first.”
Is there any of us who would not make some corrections in the second
It is not unusual for a person to lie awake at nights regretting the
mistakes of the past. We would do well to heed the words of an unknown
“Stand out in the sunlight of promise,
forgetting whatever the past held of sorrow or wrong.
We waste half our strength in a useless regretting;
We sit by old tombs in the dark too long.”
Perhaps as Jacob wrestled with God, he was wrestling with the dark
ghost of regret over those unfortunate misdeeds of yesterday.
On the other hand, it could have been anxiety over future events
that was keeping him awake. After all, he still had to confront Esau--and
when he left home, Esau was in a righteous rage.
According to Dr. John A. Shindler, 50 percent of all the people going to
doctors in the United States are victims of just one disease. Of 500
consecutive admissions to the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, 77 per cent
were sick with this one malady. Dr. Shindler defines the disorder as
psychoneurosis, and he identifies the cause as acute anxiety about the future.
When Sir Walter Raleigh was burdened with a huge debt, his doctor
said to him, “Sir Walter, if you don’t stop worrying you will die.”
Sir Walter looked up sadly and said, “I can’t help worrying as long as
that debt is over my head. It may kill me, but you might as well tell my cook
to order the water in the kettle not to boil as to command my brain not to
Perhaps it was acute anxiety with which Jacob was wrestling. His
brother Esau was heading toward him with 400 men. He could not know
Esau’s intentions. It was reasonable that he should have some anxiety.
It is interesting how often guilt about the past is part of anxiety about
the future. Besides, time was moving very quickly for Jacob as it does for us
all. He was no spring chicken anymore. What would happen to his family if
he were incapacitated or even dead? Even if brother Esau didn’t get him,
eventually Father Time would. There comes that time in a person’s life when
he starts asking such questions. What about his dimming eyesight and his
Boomers don’t age very well, we are told. A man who has spent two
decades trying to look like a teenager has a difficult task accepting the
ravages of time. That is why mental health professionals expect an epidemic
of suicides now that the Baby Boomers are entering the middle and later
years of life.
What about the issue of death? Woody Allen once said that he was not
afraid of dying. He just didn’t want to be there when it happened. Jacob had a
lot to think about as he lay there beside the brook. Perhaps it was anxiety
about the future with which Jacob wrestled that fateful night.
Or even more likely perhaps it was the issue of Jacob’s whole
relationship with God that kept him awake that night. At Bethel Jacob
had prayed arrogantly, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that
I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come
again to my father’s house in peace; THEN the Lord shall be my God.” (Gen.
However, Jacob prayed a different prayer as he prepared to bed down
beside the brook with Esau headed toward him. He prayed this time, “O God
. . . I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies . . .”
Something profound had happened in Jacob’s life, and it was more than
fear of his brother. It had to do with the recognition of who God is and who
we as human beings are. For Jacob it culminated in this wrestling match
beside the brook in a place he named Peniel.
Jacob had always been a competitor, a striver, with man and with God.
In the vernacular of TV commercials, he knew where he was going. He knew
what he wanted. He was determined to do what he needed to do in order to
get there. He would be in control. He would master the possibilities. The sky
was the limit. Do you know anyone like that?
They have always been with us--men and women determined to grab
all the gusto that life has to offer them, and when they do, they discover
themselves standing holding a handful of foam--but nothing real or lasting.
Jacob needed something more. He needed an overall purpose for his
life. He needed to understand the overall scheme of things and where his life
fit in. Suddenly he saw that his life was nearly over and all that he had
thought was important would soon be dust.
What does it all mean? Who am I, really? Does my life really matter?
As he wrestled with God that night, the encounter was so demanding that he
threw the hollow of his thigh out of joint.
One thinks of Jesus kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane with drops
of sweat like great drops of blood falling from his brow. This was that kind of
encounter for Jacob. From this day forward, he would never be the same
For you see, Jacob needed more than anything else in life to understand
that God is the Master of the universe and not Jacob. It is interesting that the
being with whom Jacob wrestles does not prevail over him. As someone has
said, Jacob is like a grand stallion. It is not God’s desire that Jacob grovel at
his feet. God has no use for one who is continually groveling. God wanted a
grand stallion, but one who could be useful, one who could be saddled, one
who would know who his Master is that he might fulfill his intended purpose.
That is what God desires from us, as well. Our lives are useful only to
ourselves and only for a season if we refuse to give God the reins.
The writer of Genesis closes this chapter in Jacob’s life with a beautiful
picture. It is a picture of a limping Jacob preparing to meet his brother Esau.
He is no longer afraid of Esau. After all, he has wrestled all night with God.
How can he fear a mere mortal? But now he is a new Jacob. He even has a
new name, Israel. He will become a prince among men. Forevermore his
descendants, millions of them, will be known as the children of Israel. As the
sun rises over Peniel we see him standing there with a dislocated thigh
indicating his brokenness. Yet, he is stronger than he has ever been before.
His life is now aligned with the eternal purposes of God.
How about you? Have you been wrestling with God? Isn’t it time to let
God be Sovereign over your life?
There is a story about a man who had mis-spent most of his life. A
friend was teasing him about it.
“Say John,” he asked mischievously, “You still spending a lot of time
wrestling with the old Devil?”
The fellow answered good-naturedly, “Nowadays, I spend most of my
time wrestling with God.”
His friend asked incredulously, “Wrestling with God? How do you
hope to win a wrestling match with God?”
John smiled and answered, “Oh, you misunderstand. In this wrestling
match, I’m hoping to lose.”